SIGNIS REVIEWS FEBRUARY 2018
DEN OF THIEVES
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER
MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE
SHAPE OF WATER, The
VISAGES, VILLAGES/ FACES, PLACES
UK/US, 2018, 105 minutes, Colour.
Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth Mc Govern, Killian Scott, Florence Pugh.
Directed by Jaume Collett- Serra.
This is another fast-paced thriller with Liam Neeson. In older age, he seems to have been specialising in this kind of film, especially with the three films of the series, Taken. And this is the fourth film that he has made with Spanish director, Jaume Collett- Serra. The previous films were Run All Night, Unknown, Nonstop.
Nonstop provided tension in the air. This time a lot of the action takes place in a train, one of those commuter trains that travels north from New York City along the Hudson River. So, The Commuter can take its place confidently in the catalogue of exciting films that take place on trains – as well as train crashes. But, there is also some good action after the crash when the train is under siege from the police and FBI agents.
Liam Neeson is usually a hero – he has played some villains but, tall and strong, he was born to be a hero. It is only after some time that we learn that he actually was in the New York police force but left and has become an insurance salesman. He lives in the suburbs, devoted wife, Elizabeth Mc Govern, intelligent son about to go to college, Killian Scott, colleagues at work, attentiveness to clients – and then he gets fired. He begins to drown his sorrows with his former police partner, Patrick Wilson, noticing that the head of the squad, now a captain, is also in the bar (Sam Neill).
We have seen him on and off the train many times. This time a woman, Vera Farmiga, comes to sit with him, a psychologist asking him a hypothetical question – well at least she says initially it is hypothetical. For $100,000 she challenges him to find someone on the train who answers to the name, Prynne, who needs to be eliminated. As a former detective and feeling miserable about his situation, he accepts the challenge.
At this stage, we might be wondering what on earth we would do faced with such a challenge and the impossibility of identifying such a character on a crowded commuter train. Well, he recovers the initial outlay of the money, starts to move up and down the train. He has to use all his ingenuity, causing all kinds of disruptions and suspicions, getting phone calls from the mysterious woman who seems to be observing close-up all that he does or fails to do.
Lots of suspicious characters, lots of suspicious behaviour, and seemingly no nearer to identifying Prynne.
Eventually, as they near the end of the line, the main suspects are in just one carriage but, of course, it doesn’t end there.
Plenty of excitement, plenty of scrutiny of potential criminals, some twists and who are the goodies and baddies, and then the crash and the siege.
After the preview, there was some discussion as to whether the plot was plausible (hopefully not happening too often) and whether it all made sense, especially the role of the woman who challenged the commuter as well as her involvement in the situation that led to this fatal trip. It seemed to require a bit of thinking, connecting and linking, but it does seem that the plot, despite its far-fetchedness, can actually be explained.
On the other hand, with the fast action, not so many members of the audience will be sitting back and detachedly working out whether it all makes sense.
DEN OF THIEVES
2018, 140 minutes, Colour.
Gerard Butler, Jordan Bridges, Pablo Schreiber, Evan Jones, O'Shea Jackson Jr, .50 Cent Jackson, Eric Braeden.
Directed by Christian Gudegast.
While ‘den of thieves’ is a scriptural phrase and Jesus is the one to clear them out of the temple, it is a bit of a stretch to see the special squad of the LA sheriff’s department, scruffy, tough, burly and brutal, as the equivalent of Jesus!
We are informed at the opening that LA is the bank robbery capital of the world, a robbery happening every 48 minutes. Whether they are like the robberies in this film is another matter.
For two hours twenty minutes, the audience is immersed in the world of the robbers as well as the world of the special squad. And, in its way, it is very interesting. However, with the proliferation of guns, the seemingly indiscriminate firing of the machine guns during robberies, it is not quite an advertisement for anyone to go to live in LA. (A reviewer remarked: the National Rifle Association’s film of the year!)
The film opens with a robbery just before dawn, a security truck stolen by a group of masked men outside a doughnut shop. The police arrive as do the FBI and shots are fired, a policeman killed. And there are clashes between the tough leader of the squad, Nick O’Brien? (Gerard Butler) and the neatly-suited vegan leader of the FBI.
As the film progresses, we get to know the squad, Nick, a big tough man (though there are some domestic scenes where he is shown not to be able to handle his family situation well at all even in being shown weeping as he sat in his car), the various loyal members of the group and their methods.
And, as the film progresses, we get to know the thieves, highly organised and their den, an old warehouse, the group with expertise in mechanics, communications and Internet, surveillance techniques. They are led by Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), a former footballer and military man. His group have quite a diverse ethnic representation, African-American?, Hispanic, Anglo, Hawaiian.
Nick makes a connection with their getaway driver, Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, who more than resembles his father, Ice Cube, whom he played in Straight Outta Compton). Donnie defends himself and is seen as an ace risk-taking driver. Nick also accosts Donnie when he is out at a restaurant with the whole group, Nick identifying Merriman as the past footballer.
Which leads up to the plan for the den of thieves to rob the Federal Reserve. How they plan to do it is part of the interest and entertainment of this film. In preparation, there is a robbery at a local bank and the taking of hostages, once again Nick and his squad arriving as well as the FBI who want to take over and have a negotiator which the thieves have explicitly forbidden.
But, this is a decoy and it is Nick who discovers what is really happening. And, the scenes of the Federal Reserve, are shown in some detail. It is all rather smart, especially the way that Donnie is employed on the staff of the Reserve diner, enabling him, however, to participate in the robbery.
Enthusiasts of this genre have all referred to the Robert De Niro-Al? Pacino thriller by Michael Mann, Heat. However, most of the audience will not quite remember the detail of Heat and take this film on its own merits, written and directed by Christian Gudegast (son of Eric Braeden who has a guest appearance).
(For some years this reviewer has been advocating Gerard Butler full-screen versions of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – Tom Cruise did all right, but Butler looks and sounds the real thing!)
And, most of the audience will surely not have guessed the final twist - something to look forward to.
US, 2017, 113 minutes, Colour.
Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, Glenn Close, Harry Shearer, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Simmons, Katt Williams, Christopher Walken, June Squibb, Katie Aselton, Jack Mc Gee, Ving Fhames.
Directed by Laurence Sher.
Two 40 year old men, who are revealed to be twins, definitely not identical, played by Owen Wilson and Ed Helms, go to their mother’s wedding ceremony. So far, so all right. But Peter, Helms, is an extremely uptight doctor, expert proctologist, divorced and with a son who doesn’t like him, takes the opportunity to ask his mother about their father about whom she has never spoken. Kyle, Wilson, on the other hand is, well, Owen Wilson as in so many of his films, laid-back, easy-going, getting a huge royalties income from the fact that a photo of him as a surfer has been on millions of sauce bottles.
Mother is played by Glenn Close. She has stories about the 1970s, the easy morals, the promiscuity, doubts about paternity… But, she gives them a clue, sending them on a quest, something significant because the two have had difficulties in getting on, Peter, the older, being severely protective and Kyle, the younger, needing a father figure. At this stage, his Hawaiian girlfriend, reveals that she is pregnant so finding a father figure is significant.
Luckily, money and buying tickets is not a problem! Following the clue, off they go to Miami, tracking down a famous football player from the 1970s, Terry Bradshaw. Non-football fans will get a surprise at the final credits to find that Terry Bradshaw is being played by – Terry Bradshaw. The twins are excited, have always been fans of Terry, happy memories of him. Terry takes a shine to Peter and tends to ignore Kyle. Anyway, you will have to see the movie to get the details, but he is not the one.
Next candidate is a financier whom Terry and his friends looked down on. They track him down and he turns out to be Roland Hunt, played by J.K. Simmons, not quite the financier they were expecting. In fact, the opposite. He explains that he is involved in repossession of cars and, eagerly, they join him in one of his quests but it turns out that he is a sham and a con man. He is not the one.
Peter is inclined to give up except that Kyle has a theory that the universe is talking to them and that they need to pursue their quest. Actually, the universe responds by getting them stuck in a traffic jam, seeing a hitchhiker and Peter, of course, wanting to look the other way. Kyle, on the other hand, reaches out. Hitchhiker is African- American (so a lot of comments on race issues) who wants to get home to his wife and children for a birthday celebration. Katt Williams is very genial in the role of the hitchhiker, being tied up the brothers in case he is a serial killer, trying to arbitrate in the squabble between the two brothers and, if a reviewer were to claim that they are stuck on a level crossing with the train approaching, the reader would be inclined to disbelieve. But…
Then the universe speaks to them in the form of police who know well the next candidate to be their father. This time they are off to Boston. Kyle has led a very free and easy life in Hawaii. Peter is in no way free and easy but actually gives in to Kyle’s advice in a casual encounter with a sad young woman at a bar. Actually, this leads to even more complications than might have been anticipated and the possibility that their father is a very well-known and respected policeman. But, with a lot of discussions, he is not the one.
They go home, go to see the local vet, Christopher Walken, who put down their pet cat years earlier. They aggressively believe that he must be their father and attack him but mother comes to see them and, there is a twist in the revelation of their parental identity.
Some tears at the end as well as some smiles. Not a must-see but, in many ways, a pleasant enough pastime moving from the raucous, as in so many American comedies, to the moral and moralising.
FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
UK, 2017, 105 minutes, Colour.
Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Stephen Graham, Kenneth Cranham, Vanessa Redgrave, Francis Barber, Leanne Best.
Directed by Paul Mc Guigan.
While enjoyment of the film does not depend on audience knowledge of actress Gloria Grahame, it will certainly enhance the enjoyment of older audiences who do remember her and film buffs who have seen her performances and are aware of her reputation.
The film star who does have the possibility of dying in Liverpool – but does not, is Gloria Grahame. In fact, the film incorporates some scenes from the actual films, the credits for Naked Alibi and an extensive insert of her song in that film, Ace in the Hole. Gloria Grahame won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Bad and the beautiful, 1952. The film ends with the footage from that ceremony, her walking up the aisle, accepting the statuette, saying thanks and immediately walking off – with a final quip from compere, Bob Hope.
As Gloria Grahame’s career began to fade in Hollywood, she appeared on stage, travelling to England in the late 1970s to appear in Lancashire in The Glass Menagerie. This is where the film opens, her putting on her make-up, week, in some detail, and then collapsing. It gives the audience the opportunity to look at Annette Bening and her interpretation of Gloria Grahame, certainly a fine performance from the actress, not trying to impersonate her but to communicate her character.
The film is based on an autobiographical memoir by Liverpool actor, Peter Turner. He is played by Jamie Bell (reunited with Julie Waters after Billy Elliot – Julie Walters playing his mother here). He has a chance encounter with Gloria Grahame and they begin a friendship, her staying at his family home, befriended by his mother, admired by his father (Kenneth Cranham in a good cameo), and his brother Joe, Stephen Graham.
The two begin an affair, symbolised by a scene in Gloria’s room in the house where she wants to learn disco dancing and Peter obliges (reminding audiences of how talented a dancer Jamie Bell was when he was young Billy Elliot). They travel to America, his seeing Gloria’s American world, as well as to California with a visit Gloria’s mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and her hostile sister, played by Frances Barber.
There are lyrical moments in the UK where Gloria is successful in the play, Rain. However, she is ill, with the cancer which she has neglected. There are key sequences in the United States where Gloria goes out all day without telling Peter where she was, seems to turn on him and he leaves. Then there is the same sequence from her point of view, visits to the doctor, her unwillingness to have Peter involved in her illness – quite an emotional change for the audience. However, in England, she phones him and takes refuge in his house.
This is a British film directed by Scots Paul Mc Guigan who has a rather wide range of dramatic films as well as Sherlock telemovies with Benedict Cumberbatch. He has a very intelligent screenplay by Matt Greehhalgh to work with and excellent performances all round. This is symbolised by a very moving sequence towards the end, a reading of a scene from Romeo and Juliet between Gloria and Peter.
In the early part of the film, many in the audience might feel that they are prying into the private life of an actress. However, as the film proceeds, the characters become more real, more interesting and the audience becomes more able to identify with them, until the sad ending with Gloria’s death and the amusing postscript of her ultra-brief Oscar-acceptance.
US, 2017, 120 minutes, Colour.
Margot Robbie, Sebastien Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bogdana Novakovitz, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace.
Directed by Craig Gillespie.
This is a strongly autobiographical title. And the Tonya is champion ice skater, Tonya Harding – who, in the 1990s, was known as a determined competitor and who was responsible for paying injury to her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan. With this film, this aspect of the reputation will happen all over again.
With the I in the title, Tonya is telling her own story, and she does it straight to camera, sitting in her kitchen in later years, confiding in the audience, reminiscing, becoming angry, and always insisting that anything that happened to her was not her fault. At other times, during the film, she will also turn to camera tell us all about it.
In fact, other characters also talk to camera. The main person in her life was her mother, an embittered woman, taking out her angers on her daughter, living through her daughter and her skating talent but always undermining, often physically violent, badmouthing her daughter. Allison Janney, whom audiences have admired for decades, notably for her performance in the television series, The West Wing, has already won the Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress and the same award from the Screen Actors Guild. It is an extraordinarily intense portrait of a monstrous woman, absorbed in herself, seeing everything in connection with herself, but also absorbed, up close or at a distance, with her daughter. It is a performance worth watching.
But also, well worth watching, is the performance of Margot Robbie as Tonya. Two talented little girls portray her when she was small, determined, and outskilling girls at her skating who are older. She tells us that she always loved skating, that she knew nothing else, that this was her life. Margot Robbie has to portray Tonya as a teenager, as a young adult, the crisis in her life and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan coming when she was only 23. Margot Robbie embodies Tonya, as a character, as a redneck, which she claims she is, as a moody young woman, and as a competitive performer, Margot Robbie doing a great deal of the skating herself.
The other person in Tonya’s life was Jeff Gilhooly. He is played here by Sebastian Stan, another strong performance, a friendly young man, in a relationship with the teenage Tonya, ambitious for her, but also prone to irrational and violent outbursts. This is a tempestuous relationship, a fierce example of domestic violence. And her mother continually declares she never liked him.
Jeff Gilhooly has a friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a large and oafish young man, not too many brains to bless himself with, who acts as Tonya’s bodyguard and is the brains (or lack of brains) in going beyond Jeff Gilhooly’s aim to frighten Nancy Kerrigan but employing an ignorant friend who bashes the skater’s knee.
The action after the event of the bashing reveals Jeff Is Becoming more and more desperate, the police investigation, Shawn’s ignorant denials, the arrest of the actual basher, Shawn setting up Jeff at midnight at a diner to get him to confess… It is hard to tell how much Tonya actually knew or discovered after the event. Nevertheless, she perseveres in competitive skating, preparing for the 1992 Winter Olympics, making impression with her skills, though always alienating the team of judges by her personality, by her presentation, by her attitudes.
Comes the moment at the Olympics…
In the epilogue to the film, it is revealed that Tonya became a boxer, another violent sport. A postscript indicates that she has settled down somewhat and, in fact, accompanied Margot Robbie to the Golden globes.
The credits images are worth seeing, impressive scenes of the actual Tonya Harding and her skating – and a glimpse her actual mother looking exactly the way Allison Janney portrays her in the film
A slice of American life – with many bitter tastes.
US, 2017, 93 minutes, Colour.
Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Jordan Rodrigues, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Stephen Mc Kinley Henderson.
Directed by Greta Gerwig.
Every reviewer has said, or is going to say, that Lady Bird reminds them of films that Greta Gerwig has appeared in and/or has written. So this reviewer is going to say the same – because it is true.
Here is a film set in Sacramento, California, in 2002. Partly autobiographical?
Information on Greta Gerwig indicates that she was born in Sacramento, 1983 (which makes her two years younger than the protagonist of Lady Bird), that she was brought up as a Unitarian but went to a Catholic school.
There is something distinctive about the films that it Greta Gerwig writes as well as about her delivery – there is wit, there is nonchalance, there is determination, there is some seething under the surface, there is a desire to be agreeable… And all this is to the fore in Lady Bird.
Two words to describe the writing and the direction: perspective and sensitivity.
Here we are in the US in 2002, a cross-section of people who live in Sacramento, ordinary Californians. They work in hospitals, in IT. The children go to high schools and are involved in studies, school activities like plays, get together, listen to music, experiment with drugs, are preoccupied with sexuality and their identity. Because of the incisiveness and insight of the writing, we get to know a great number of characters fairly well. And their parts are sensitively written and performed.
One of the advantages of the film is that many of the sequences are particularly brief yet significant. Though the running time of Lady Bird is 95 minutes, with such brief and telling sequences, it seems more in the sense of that there is more to see and to reflect on.
Saoirse Ronan has been a significant actress since she was a girl, Oscar-nominated 10 years earlier for Atonement. She has appeared in a range of interesting films including Hannah, The Lovely Bones, Brooklyn. She is the type of actress that can inhabit a role, becoming the character rather than a star whom we recognise instantly. This is a very subtle performance – and her Christine, “Lady Bird”, is an irritating character, a frequently likeable character, a teenager who is self-absorbed, who has been put upon by her always critical mother, supported by a rather depressed and soft father, making friends at school, exploiting teachers, choosing boyfriends (rather unwisely), yearning to be out of Sacramento yet the nun teaching her tells her that her assignment on the city is actually full of love for the city she declares she hates.
Laurie Metcalf is very strong as her ever-criticising mother, loving her daughter, doing her best, wanting her daughter to the best she can be but unable to be verbally affirming. Tracy Letts is very effective as her father. In fact, the whole cast, especially the teenagers at school, have been well selected and bring their characters to vivid life, especially Beanie Feldstein as her friend Julie whom she momentarily betrays and Lucas Hedges as her friend Danny.
So, we are immersed in the school year 2002 – 2003, reminded of the invasion of Iraq and its political consequences.
Of interest is the church background. Greta Gerwig attended a Catholic school but is not a Catholic and this is the case with Lady Bird, receiving a blessing instead of communion, for instance. There are Catholic motifs role throughout the film, the celebration of Mass and the enthusiastic response (despite a lot of the students being bored and distracting one another). There is a genial priest, Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley? Anderson), a widower, ordained, taking the students for drama and putting on a Stephen Sondheim musical. His successor, very amusingly, takes the drama and directs as if it were a football match. Lois Smith is a genially tolerant none.
The characters of this film have great qualities but are also flawed, making this an always interesting film, audiences being able to identify easily at times, distance at other times – which makes it quite a substantial drama.
MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER
Japan, 2017, 195 minutes, Colour.
Voices of (English-dubbing): Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslett, Jim Broadbent, Ewan Bremner, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Morwenna Banks.
Directed by Hiramasa Yonebayashi.
Mary Stewart was a British author of children’s stories. She wrote about Merlin and these books were adapted for a television series. She also wrote the popular story, The Moonspinners, adapted by Disney as a film vehicle for Haley Mills in the 1960s. This film is based on her novel, The Little Broomstick.
There has been something of a tradition in Japanese animation, especially from Studio Ghibli, with taking British stories and animating them, for example Howl’s Moving Castle, Steamboy.
This film was made by an alumnus of Studio Ghibli, Hiramasa Yonebayashi, who had directed The World of Arrietty as well as When Marnie Was There. The visual style of this film, from Studio Ponoc, resembles Ghibli in many ways. Which means that it will appeal to the fans of this kind of Japanese animation.
The film opens with quite some vigour, a castle on fire, vain attempts to put it out, the audience noting a little girl trying to escape, getting away but then being pursued by monstrous creatures through the air. Then the credits. Then a very peaceful English countryside and a country house, with the Mary of the title, a young girl whose parents are away and a week to go before school starts. She is under the care of her grandaunt Charlotte and the housekeeper Mrs Banks.
Unfortunately, Mary has an inordinate propensity for breaking things and getting matters tangled. But, she is given a mission to take some raspberry jam to the delivery boy, Peter, who has commented adversely on her appearance and to whom she has taken a dislike. He is also the owner of two cats whom she has encountered, one grey, one black, who will appear and reappear throughout the adventures.
And, adventures is probably the key word. Mary finds mysterious flowers in the woods, which came from the seeds that the little girl in the opening had been trying to rescue. They have extraordinary powers – and Mary finds herself being transported, on a mysterious broom (the little broom of the novel’s title who elicits our sympathy because of its presence, being broken, mended, magical powers) to an Academy run by two eccentrics, Madame Mumblechook And Doctor Dee, who want to use the essence of the flowers in order to create super creatures with magical powers.
Madame and the Doctor are not the most ethical teachers in the world and this builds up into a conflict with Mary, their wanting to experiment on Peter, her pledge to him to save him. This involves a mysterious experiment with a large and evolving globular mass which has trapped Peter.
Obviously, it will end happily, but there is tension and a lot of it on the way.
Made for Japanese children’s audiences – but it would be interesting to discover how the English-language audience responds to it, magical action and themes of magic, with a very strong British voice cast which includes Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner and Ruby Barnhill as Mary.
THE MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE
US, 2018, 142 minutes, Colour.
Dylan O' Brien, Thomas Brodie- Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Walton Goggins, Katherine McNamara?, Aidan Gillen, Natalie Emanuel, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Ki Hong Lee.
Directed by Wes Ball.
Since this is the third episode in this young adult story, it is clearly geared for fans of the books on which the films are based as well as the films themselves. For those who might come to this film cold, it presupposes so much of the previous films that they might well be lost.
The fans will remember the previous films in all their detail, the first story about teenagers losing their memories and trapped in a maze. They will also recall the escape, the second film and the laboratories where experiments on a virus and the spreading of plague are done. For the less-involved audience and reviewers, it is sometimes a bit of a hard slog to remember the previous films in detail and not mix them up with similar stories, especially the Divergent series which it resembles in many ways, except that this time the central character is a hero rather than, as in Divergent and The Hunger Games, where the central character is female.
This time, the film opens with desert scenes, a ship that the rebels are refurbishing as a refuge, young captives in a train, rebels in pursuit, some rather spectacular stunt work with the rescue.
Then, we are introduced to get into a great number of the characters. At the centre, is Thomas. He has been played by Dylan O’Brien? but this time he seems a rather sullen, short-fused seeker of vengeance as well as a saviour figure. (The IMDb notes that Dylan O’ Brien is characterised by a goofy personality – he must be a good actor because there is absolutely nothing of goofiness in his performance here as well is in American Assassin).
The villains are also back. Aidan Gillen is Janson, the often seemingly-smiling security head of the laboratories where investigations are going on to find a serum against the play. Patricia Clarkson is also back again as the doctor who does have some sympathy for the rebels. With her is Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) who for motives important for herself has been the agent of the capture of the main rebels. One of them are still being experimented on, Minho (Ki Hong Lee).
Thomas is also prone to taking heroic risks as well as some dopey risks. He decides to go into the city to rescue his friend from the laboratories, naturally enough his best friends all agree to go with him. So does an older associate, Giancarlo Esposito.
So, there is a lot of action in the city, infiltrating the city, being the zombie-like plague victims, infiltrating the laboratories. There are a lot of confrontations, Thomas with Teresa, with Janson, leading to a lot of stunt work fights at the end.
Thomas has always had a thing for Teresa but is angry with her, wanting to go into the city to find her – and she finding that he is not only a saviour but his blood might have the cure for the world. It doesn’t quite work out for the happy-ever-after ending audiences might have hoped for. Thomas Brodie- Sangster as Newt, Thomas’s devoted friend, is also in danger because he has contracted the plague.
As might be expected in this kind of post-apocalyptic story, there is a final remnant, finding peace away from the turmoil of the city and the plague.
With this series completed, what will turn up next…?
US, 2017, 140 minutes, Colour.
Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Chiro, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Brian d’Arcy James, Bill Camp, Graham Greene.
Directed by Aaron Sorkin.
Molly’s Game is actually poker. She does not play herself. She supervises, controls, vets possible players, learns the techniques, and is handsomely tipped by her wealthy clients and gamblers. She is played by Jessica Chastain, another very strong performance.
The writer-director is Aaron Sorkin. He is well-known as a storyteller, excellent script writer, and now he makes his directorial debut as well as writing the screenplay. While the plot is quite strong, it is the dialogue which is very powerful and the actors give it more than capable delivery. This is very true of an extensive voice-over from Jessica Chastain (perhaps a little rushed at the opening, getting so much information across). Idris Elba is her lawyer and has some very powerful scenes and some very forthright speeches. Kevin Costner, on the other hand, as her father is intense but laid-back.
This is a true story, based on a book by Molly Bloom (some references to James Joyce’s Ulysses and assumptions that she is Irish), but some characters and episodes have been fictionalised, as they always are, for dramatic purposes.
We are challenged right from the opening sequence in voice-over to speculate on what would be the worse thing that could happen in sport. There is talk about losing. Molly actually has been a top skier since she was a little girl, pressurised severely to succeed by her psychologist-teacher father., She suffered an accident and spent time in hospital. She recovered, was on the Olympic team but had another accident and was hospitalised. Molly is certainly a determined woman.
Then the scene shifts. Molly is in bed in her apartment. In the early hours, there is a disturbance at her door and armed FBI agents come to arrest her. The accusation is that she has been running illegal poker games and that she has been associating with Russian Mafia gangsters.
The film is quite long but moves rapidly – except for audiences like this reviewer who have no knowledge or experience of a poker game except that everybody is bluffing and putting on their poker face. This is a bit of a drawback for non--players to understand the details of what is going on.
However, there is much else to be involved in, especially Molly trying to persuade her lawyer to take on her case even though she has no money, all confiscated by the government. He has a rather erudite little daughter who was influential in his taking on the case despite himself.
He reads Molly’s book. He sits and listens to her. He interrogates her. And this gives the opportunity for flashbacks, to Molly as a little girl and her skiing and defying her father, to a teenager deliberately baiting her father at the meal table as he sits with the mother he has betrayed and with two sons who were to become very very successful. We are taken back to Molly’s time as a cocktail waitress in Los Angeles, the offer of a job in an estate agency and the boss’s request to her to supervise and then organise the poker games with his high-rolling friends.
There are some interesting subplots involving some of the players, especially Michael Cera as a rather vain and flirting actor, Brian d’Arcy James Is a seemingly innocuous, ignorant player who is rather more shrewd in money matters, Bill Camp as a talented player who gets baited, losing his cool and losing his money.
When Molly is closed down in Los Angeles, she moves to New York, sets up new games, especially with the help of an Irish friend, Chris O’Dowd?, but this leads to the criminal associations and her downfall. To cope, she has become dependent on medication, both uppers to keep her going, downers to give her some kind of rest.
Molly’s character doesn’t quite go in the directions we might have expected and so there is an interesting dramatic conclusion to her story, her appearance in court, her father’s reappearance one evening as she goes skating and his giving her a three-minute therapy lesson for her to ask the right questions to get answers about her relationship with him and its consequences.
For those who know their poker, no problems. For those who don’t, some attention pauses throughout the film, but soon taken up again with the interesting plot and the performances – and the strong dialogue.
US, 2017, 89 minutes, Colour.
Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Ariel Vaysman, Yoel Weisshaus.
Directed by Joshua Z.Weinstein.
There is often a hesitation in being invited into a closed community, especially a religious community that has strict cultural traditions. This is the case with films about Orthodox Jews. A number of these films, often critical, come from Israel. However, this is a film from New York City, an Orthodox enclave – and, significantly for cultural awareness, spoken in Yiddish.
This rather brief film opens with a street scene, men and women walking, the background of shops and buildings, but, in the foreground, many of the men with their hats and religious locks. From them a middle-aged man, a touch heavy, a touch balding, hat and locks, emerges and the camera follows him. He is Menashe.
Menashe is a widower with a young son. However, with memories of unhappy aspects of his marriage, he is very cautious about the tradition that he should marry again, that a man cannot manage a household. This is a woman’s task. In the meantime, his very demanding brother-in-law has taken charge of his son. The two men are seen frequently clashing.
While the film shows many scenes of Menashe at work, his busy and critical boss, an accident with goods and a truck, there are also many scenes of Menashe at home with his son. It is an awkward relationship, with memories of the mother. The boy is not entirely at ease with his father.
The central episode of the film is a dinner in memory of his dead wife. The brother-in-law expects that he and his family will prepare the dinner. Menashe is determined that he will, even though he is not particularly good at cooking and has to borrow recipes from his neighbour (one of the very few women who appears in the film, along with the mother of many children shopping in a supermarket).
Religious men talk amongst themselves, quote the Talmud, Menashe joining in the scripture readings and prayers. However, they come to the dinner and, even though the cooking is not particularly good, the rabbi is complementary. And, Menashe’s young son sings his mother’s favourite song, giving some feeling to the dinner.
So, Menashe will assert himself, wants his son to stay with him and the son has to make his decision.
While so many of the interactions are common to human nature and universal, there is a continued challenge to an audience wanting to understand what seems to be a strange culture, sometimes oppressive traditions, always in the name of religion, and the listening to Yiddish making the characters and their crises even more distant.
US, 2017, 130 minutes, Colour.
Daniel Day- Lewis, Vicki Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina Mc Kee, Brian Gleeson.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
An ingenious and fascinating title.
This is an unexpected story from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. However, every film that Anderson makes is so different from the previous one that he is always unexpected. And this time this is a British story, filmed in England, with British characters and British tone. An American’s perspective on Britain in the post-war period, in the 1950s.
The threat of the title is rather literal. This is a film about fashion. It is a film about the fashion world in London in the 1950s, a focus on an individual dress designers and makers, Reynolds Woodcock, whose life and work is in vivid contrast to the lives and work of French costume years, Dior and Yves St Laurent. (There have been several documentaries and feature films on these two men which highlight the difference between their lives and careers and that of Reynolds Woodcock.)
Paul Thomas Anderson directed Daniel Day Lewis to an Oscar winning-performance in There Shall Be Blood (2007). Daniel Day Lewis is the only actor so far to have won the Oscar for Best Actor three times (My Left Foot and Lincoln). He is an actor who does not make films so frequently but has the capacity to go deeply into his character, to inhabit his character. It has been noted that he does not usually have his own British accent which he does here. His performance is very subtle, eliciting some puzzle from the audience about the intricacies of his character, his moods, his talent, his capacity for relationships – and not.
For the audience interested in fashion, there are many sequences of dressmaking, the wearing of the different creations, and a detailed fashion show.
Reynolds works with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, so often in Mike Leigh films, a strong and sometimes astringent presence), who looks after the business side of the House, also keeping an eye on her brother’s emotions and relationships.
The relationship in this part of Reynolds’ life is Alma, effectively played in a mixture of meekness, gentleness, determination and exercise of power, by Luxembourg actress Vicki Krieps. He is attracted to her when she is a waitress serving him breakfast, invites her to dinner, she returns to his house and becomes part of the household, her measurements taken in great detail, dresses designed for her, her wearing them, becoming a model, participating in the fashion show.
But, back to Reynolds. He becomes continually more complex, exceedingly demanding on Alma, fidgety and easily irritated by excessive noise, wanting to concentrate, sketch designs, and is rather absorbed in himself.
The plot becomes more complex as Alma realises her love for Reynolds (but not the co-dependency) which leads her to become more wilful than we thought her capable of – and more wilful than she might ever have dreamt about herself. She devises a way to subdue Reynolds, partly subjugate him, symbolised mushrooms and by her presence as a lavish party for New Year’s Eve and his desperate following her and trying to rescue her from the crowd.
Anderson has directed the film in a very measured way, not concerned about time or fast pace, allowing the camera to stay focused on the character’s face, or on a tense situation for far longer than the audience might be expecting. Anderson wants audiences to get to know his characters, try to empathise with them, try to understand them, to reflect on them. So, a reviewer’s warning, this is definitely not a film for the impatient.
An intriguing film that would probably well repay a second viewing.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
US, 2017, 123 minutes, Colour.
Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Has water shape? But it can be shaped by its containers. Has water a life? Depending on how you look at it, its qualities, life-giving.
There are many aspects of water in this film. But, the initial water focus is on a strange amphibian, brought from the Amazon region to a facility in the United States for examination. For those with movie memories – and Guillermo del Toro certainly has these with many illusions and quotes in this film, Shirley Temple and Bojangles dancing, Betty Grable and musicals, Alice Faye singing the Oscar-winner, You’ll Never Know – there is the 1950s Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The amphibian is brought to a facility in an American city which, to all intents and purposes, looks to have been created in a studio, the exteriors of the street, side of the local cinema, the interiors of the apartments. But this is in contrast to the facility where the amphibian is kept, military, security and laboratories, sterile corridors, a white coated staff for medical purposes, officials for experiments and, significantly for this story, the cleaners.
But, this is a story of Elisa, a mute but hearing woman who lives alone in her apartment, gets up in the morning, starts her routine, bath, sexual awareness, breakfast, bringing food to her kindly neighbour, going to work – where she is one of the cleaners, along with the benign Zelda.
British actress, Sally Hawkins, so good in such films as Happy Go Lucky, Blue Jasmine, and Mrs Brown in the Paddington films, is Elisa, a woman of pathos but of determination. Octavia Spencer, becoming indispensable to so many films, is Zelda.
But, the beginning of the film gives it a fable tone rather than emphasis on realism. An elderly, private and timid, commercial sketcher, Giles (Richard Jenkins) introduces us in voice-over to the story of a Princess. She is Elisa. However, he might have said this is a variation on Beauty and the Beast. And this is the interest of the co-writer and director, Guillermo del Toro. From Mexico, he has built up a reputation over the decades of creating myths and fables, including The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as enjoying creating monster stories, Mimic and Pacific Rim and the Hellboy films. He is able to combine both interests in an arresting way.
In the local facility, scientists are concerned about space travel, beating the Russians into space, studying how humans can survive in space travel – and hence wanting to dissect and study the amphibian. Elisa makes friends, brings eggs, plays music, and the amphibian is able to comprehend her sign language. It is not a spoiler to say that the central part of the film is Giles and the two women spiriting the amphibian out of the facility and into the apartment.
The man in charge of the experiment is Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon in a very Michael Shannon kind of role, always seeming sinister, intense, short-fused…
So, the drama is the search for the amphibian, Elisa keeping him in her apartment with Giles’s help until it is time for him to go back to the sea.
There is a very emotional conclusion to this fairytale involving death and life.
VISAGES, VILLAGES/ FACES, PLACES
France, 2016, 89 minutes, Colour.
Agnes Varda, JR.
Directed by Agnes Varda, JR.
There is a great deal to enjoy in this documentary or, rather, cinema essay. It has great humanity as well as a delight in cameras and photography.
The French title is quite arresting but the English title capitalises on the play on words in the French title and gives us an English equivalent. In fact, there is quite a range of faces/visages throughout the film, both men and women, photographed for the documentary but also photographed for the installation which is the goal of the journey. And, as the filmmakers travel throughout France, quite a range of places/villages as well.
There is amusing animation for the opening credits, introducing the two central characters by sketch before we see them in real life. Agnes Varda is a veteran of the French film industry from the 1950s. She was a director, cinematographer, collaborator with a lot of the key filmmakers of the time including Jean-Luc? Godard. And she was married to the director, Jacques Demy. At the time of making this film she was 88. In more recent years she had shown an interest in photography and documentaries with the feature film, The Beaches of Agnes.
And JR? This is the official name of artist and photographer and muralist, Jean-Paul? Beaujon. There is more than half a century in ages between the two. He is 33.
The film amusingly shows a number of scenes of coincidence – where the two are in the same place but do not encounter each other. Rather, Agnes eventually seeks out JR and proposes a mission. They will drive around France, not with any set itinerary, but rather an excursion of discovery. He has a van, The Outside Project, which has its own studio, cameras, and a capacity for developing giant photos.
And this is what JR does. He photographs what interests him, especially people, and with his loyal long-term team, he pastes them on all kinds of surfaces, seemingly the larger the better. He and Agnes enjoy meeting people, interviewing them, finding out about themselves and what their lives are like, then photographing them and installing the photos.
The audience will enjoy going to various locations, small towns, docks, goat farms, restaurants, factories, along a street of houses owned by miners, about to be demolished. There are scenes by the sea, and a huge bunker which has fallen off a cliff and has landed on the sand. The title more than justifies the focus on places.
And the faces are very strong: the discussions with the miners and the memories of their way of life are quite intense as is the talk with Janine, the sole survivor, who has remained in the homes which are to be demolished. She stands at the door of her house with a giant photo of her towering above her. At the goat farm there is a debate about whether the horns of the goats should be removed or not as they are herded into be milked and the milk turned into cheese. There is a huge photo of the goat on the barn wall. This is the same with a farmer who does all the work, formerly done by so many, on his own. The visit to a factory leads to conversations about work, and each shift taken in a group photo.
At the fish market, there are many photos of fish which finish up on the water tower of the country town. At the docks, there are interviews with the men but, especially with their wives who do substantial work on the docks and their portraits, head to toe, pasted on the containers on the wharf. Finding the bunker which has fallen off a cliff onto the Normandy Beach, Agnes offers a photo of her photographers from the past – but the high tide washes it away overnight.
There is also a visit to the house of Jean-Luc? Godard with whom Agnes had worked in the past but the visit does not turn out as hoped for.
Agnes has failing eyesight and needs injections – leading to the idea of photographing her eyes as well as her feet and toes with their finishing up on rail carriages.
At the end of the journey, the couple sit together, the animation returns, a gentle pleasure for audiences to remember what they have experienced.
INXEBA/ THE WOUND
South Africa, 2017, 89 minutes, Colour.
Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini.
Directed by John Trengove.
In this case, the wound is circumcision, male circumcision. The setting is an initiation period for young Xhosa tribal men who go into the mountains for a week of ceremonies to make them into men. Circumcision also stands as a symbol for many of the themes of the film, focused on the male sexual member, the notion of manhood, maleness.
However, at the centre of the film is a worker in a factory, Xolani, called X, a man who might have gone on to studies but has opted for a working life. Each year, he volunteers to go into the mountains to be one of the carers for the initiates. This year he has been asked by a businessman from Johannesburg to be the carer for his son – whom the father considers to be “soft”, and wants him to become a stronger man.
This time there are ten initiates, and three of them have as their carer, Vija, a regular at the ceremonies, a married man with children, but a close friend of X.
The director is a white South African and there was some criticism that this was a white outsider’s view of initiation ceremonies and circumcision. However, John Trengove is a South African and had Xhosa writing collaborators for his screenplay.
On the one hand, the initiation ceremonies are taken very seriously. On the other, those who preside over the rituals are a group of very ordinary men, workers, fathers, supervised by a medical man. It should be noted that the actual circumcision sequences are quite graphic, not so much visually, as visceral. The young men endure the ritual with quite some stoicism, having to declare frequently that they are men. However, the recuperation is severe, herbs and lotions, bandages, slow healing, camping out in the countryside.
But the film is also about realities of homosexuality amongst the tribal men. X is a gay man, living alone, a lonely man, encountering Vija each year, Vija being sexually ambiguous in his behaviour. Homosexual behaviour is frowned on by the community and the initiates, despising the soft young man from the city, insult him as a faggot, but there is never any explicit indication that he has a gay orientation.
This means that on the one hand, there is an almost documentary-like presentation of the initiation and the circumcision. And that, on the other hand, there is a personal drama, struggles with sexual orientation and behaviour, condemnation, the need for secrecy – which leads to dramatic torment for X and the young initiate confronting him and leading to tragedy.
The film was South Africa’s Oscar-nomination. It is quite a powerful film, highly critical of the circumcision (not necessarily of initiation rites), very demanding on its audience, emotionally, viscerally, psychologically.